Marcus Porcius Cato.

Roman Farm Management The Treatises of Cato and Varro online

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[Transcriber's note: The extensive and lengthy footnotes have been
renumbered and placed at the end of the book.]







The present editor made the acquaintance of Cato and Varro standing at
a book stall on the Quai Voltaire in Paris, and they carried him away
in imagination, during a pleasant half hour, not to the vineyards and
olive yards of Roman Italy, but to the blue hills of a far distant
Virginia where the corn was beginning to tassel and the fat cattle
were loafing in the pastures. Subsequently, when it appeared that
there was then no readily available English version of the Roman
agronomists, this translation was made, in the spirit of old Piero
Vettori, the kindly Florentine scholar, whose portrait was painted by
Titian and whose monument may still be seen in the Church of Santo
Spirito: in the preface of his edition of Varro he says that he
undertook the work, not for the purpose of displaying his learning,
but to aid others in the study of an excellent author. Victorius was
justified by his scholarship and the present editor has no such
claim to attention: he, therefore, makes the confession frankly (to
anticipate perhaps such criticism as Bentley's "a very pretty poem,
Mr. Pope, but don't call it Homer") and offers the little book to
those who love the country, and to read about the country amidst the
crowded life of towns, with the hope that they may find in it some
measure of the pleasure it has afforded the editor.

The texts and commentaries used have been those of Schneider and Keil,
the latter more accurate but the former more sympathetic.

Fauquier County,

December, 1912.


The call for a reprint of this book has afforded the opportunity to
correct some errors and to make several additions to the notes.

In withholding his name from the title page the editor sought not so
much to conceal his identity as to avoid the appearance of a parade in
what was to him the unwonted field of polite literature. As, however,
he is neither ashamed of the book nor essays the _rôle_ of

A violet by a mossy stone
Half hidden from the eye,

he now and here signs his name.


Christmas, 1917.



* * * * *



Introduction: Of the Dignity of the Farmer
Of Buying a Farm
Of the Duties of the Owner
Of Laying out the Farm
Of Stocking the Farm
Of the Duties of the Overseer
Of the Duties of the Housekeeper
Of the Hands
Of Draining
Of Preparing the Seed Bed
Of Manure
Of Soil Improvement
Of Forage Crops
Of Planting
Of Pastures
Of Feeding Live Stock
Of the Care of Live Stock
Of Cakes and Salad
Of Curing Hams






I. Introduction: the literary tradition of country life

Of the definition of Agriculture:
II. a. What it is not
III. b. What it is
IV. The purposes of Agriculture are profit and pleasure
V. The four-fold division of the study of Agriculture

_I° Concerning the farm itself_:
VI. How conformation of the land affects Agriculture
VII. How character of soil affects Agriculture
VIII. (A digression on the maintenance of vineyards)
IX. Of the different kinds of soils
X. Of the units of area used in measuring land

Of the considerations on building a steading:
XI. a. Size
b. Water supply
XII. c. Location, with regard to health
XIII. d. Arrangement

Of the protection of farm boundaries:
XIV. a. Fences
XV. b. Monuments
XVI. Of the considerations of neighbourhood

_2° Concerning the equipment of a farm_:
& }Of agricultural labourers
XIX. }
& }Of draught animals
XX. }
XXI. Of watch dogs
XXII. Of farming implements

_3° Concerning the operation of a farm_:
XXIII. Of planting field crops
XXIV. Of planting olives
XXV. }
& } Of planting vines

_4° Concerning the agricultural seasons_:
& }Of the solar measure of the year, illustrated by

throughout the year, in eight seasons, viz:

XXIX. 1° February 7-March 24
XXX. 2° March 24-May 7
XXXI. 3° May 7-June 24
XXXII. 4° June 24-July 21
XXXIII. 5° July 21-September 26
XXXIV. 6° September 26-October 28
XXXV. 7° October 28-December 24
XXXVI. 8° December 24-February 7
XXXVII. Of the influence of the moon on Agriculture to which is added

with a commentary on their several occupations, viz:

_1° Preparing time_:
Of tillage,
XXXVIII. Of manuring,

XXXIX. _2° Planting time_:
Of the four methods of propagating plants, viz:

XL. a. Seeding and here of seed selection
b. Transplanting
c. Cuttage
d. Graftage, and
e. A "new" method, inarching
XLI. Of when to use these different methods
XLII. Of seeding alfalfa
XLIII. Of seeding clover and cabbage
XLIV. Of seeding grain

_3° Cultivating time_:
XLV. Of the conditions of plant growth
XLVI. Of the mechanical action of plants
XLVII. Of the protection of nurseries and meadows
XLVIII. Of the structure of a wheat plant

XLIX. _4° Harvest time_:
Of the hay harvest

L. Of the wheat harvest
LI. The threshing floor
LII. Threshing and winnowing
LIII. Gleaning
LIV. Of the vintage
LV. Of the olive harvest

_5° Housing time_:
LVI. Of storing hay
LVII. Of storing grain
LVIII. Of storing legumes
LIX. Of storing pome fruits
LX. Of storing olives
LXI. Of storing amurca

LXII. _6° Consuming time_:
LXIII. Of cleaning grain
LXIV. Of condensing amurca
LXV. Of racking wine
LXVL. Of preserved olives
LXVIL. Of nuts, dates and figs
LXVIII. Of stored fruits
LXIX. Of marketing grain

Epilogue: the dangers of the streets of Rome



Introduction: - the decay of country life

I. Of the origin, the importance and the economy of live stock husbandry
II. Of sheep
III. Of goats
IV. Of swine
V. Of neat cattle
VI. Of asses
VII. Of horses
VIII. Of mules
IX. Of herd dogs
N. Of shepherds
XI. Of milk and cheese and wool



I. Introduction: the antiquity of country life
II. Of the definition of a Roman villa
III. Of the Roman development of the industries of the steading
IV. Of aviaries
V. a. for profit
b. for pleasure (including here the description of Varro's own aviary)
VI. Of pea-cocks
VII. Of pigeons
VIII. Of turtle doves
IX. Of poultry
X. Of geese
XI. Of ducks
XII. Of rabbits
XIII. Of game preserves
XIV. Of snails
XV. Of dormice
XVI. Of bees
XVII. Of fish ponds




Quaecunque autem propter disciplinam ruris nostrorum temporum cum
priscis discrepant, non deterrere debent a lectione discentem. Nam
multo plura reperiuntur, apud veteres, quae nobis probanda sint,
quam quae repudianda.


The study of the Roman treatises on farm management is profitable to
the modern farmer however practical and scientific he may be. He will
not find in them any thing about bacteria and the "nodular hypothesis"
in respect of legumes, nor any thing about plant metabolism, nor even
any thing about the effects of creatinine on growth and absorption;
but, important and fascinating as are the illuminations of modern
science upon practical agriculture, the intelligent farmer with
imagination (every successful farmer has imagination, whether or not
he is intelligent) will find some thing quite as important to his
welfare in the body of Roman husbandry which has come down to us,
namely: a background for his daily routine, an appreciation that two
thousand years ago men were studying the same problems and solving
them by intelligent reasoning. Columella well says that in reading
the ancient writers we may find in them more to approve than to
disapprove, however much our new science may lead us to differ from
them in practice. The characteristics of the Roman methods of farm
management, viewed in the light of the present state of the art in
America, were thoroughness and patience. The Romans had learned many
things which we are now learning again, such as green manuring with
legumes, soiling, seed selection, the testing of soil for sourness,
intensive cultivation of a fallow as well as of a crop, conservative
rotation, the importance of live stock in a system of general farming,
the preservation of the chemical content of manure and the composting
of the rubbish of a farm, but they brought to their farming operations
some thing more which we have not altogether learned - the character
which made them a people of enduring achievement. Varro quotes one of
their proverbs "Romanus sedendo vincit," which illustrates my present
point. The Romans achieved their results by thoroughness and patience.
It was thus that they defeated Hannibal and it was thus that they
built their farm houses and fences, cultivated their fields, their
vineyards and their oliveyards, and bred and fed their live stock.
They seem to have realized that there are no short cuts in the
processes of nature, and that the law of compensations is invariable.
The foundation of their agriculture was the fallow[1] and one finds
them constantly using it as a simile - in the advice not to breed a
mare every year, as in that not to exact too much tribute from a bee
hive. Ovid even warns a lover to allow fallow seasons to intervene in
his courtship.

While one can find instruction in their practice even today, one
can benefit even more from their agricultural philosophy, for the
characteristic of the American farmer is that he is in too much of a

The ancient literature of farm management was voluminous. Varro cites
fifty Greek authors on the subject whose works he knew, beginning with
Hesiod and Xenophon. Mago of Carthage wrote a treatise in the Punic
tongue which was so highly esteemed that the Roman Senate ordered it
translated into Latin, but, like most of the Greeks,[2] it is now lost
to us except in the literary tradition.

Columella says that it was Cato who taught Agriculture to speak Latin.
Cato's book, written in the middle of the second century B. C, was the
first on the subject in Latin; indeed, it was one of the very first
books written in that vernacular at all. Of the other Latin writers
whose bucolic works have survived, Varro and Virgil wrote at the
beginning of the Augustan Age and were followed by the Spanish
Columella under Tiberius, and by Pliny (with his Natural History)
under Titus. After them (and "a long way after," as Mr. Punch says)
came in the fourth century the worthy but dull Palladius, who supplied
the hornbook used by the agricultural monks throughout the Dark Ages.

MARCUS PORCIUS CATO (B.C. 234-149), known in history as the elder
Cato, was the type of Roman produced by the most vigorous days of
the Republic. Born at Tusculum on the narrow acres which his peasant
forefathers had tilled in the intervals of military service, he
commenced advocate at the country assizes, followed his fortunes to
Rome and there became a leader of the metropolitan bar. He saw gallant
military service in Spain and in Greece, commanded an army, held all
the curule offices of state and ended a contentious life in the Senate
denouncing Carthage and the degeneracy of the times.

He was an upstanding man, but as coarse as he was vigorous in mind and
in body. Roman literature is full of anecdotes about him and his wise
and witty sayings.

Unlike many men who have devoted a toilsome youth to agricultural
labour, when he attained fame and fortune he maintained his interest
in his farm, and wrote his _De re rustica_ in green old age. It tells
what sort of farm manager he himself was, or wanted to be thought to
be, and, though a mere collection of random notes, sets forth more
shrewd common sense and agricultural experience than it is possible to
pack into the same number of English words. It remains today of much
more than antiquarian interest.

MARCUS TERENTIUS VARRO (B.C. 116-28) whom Quintilian called "the most
learned of the Romans," and Petrarch "il terzo gran lume Romano,"
ranking him with Cicero and Virgil, probably studied agriculture
before he studied any thing else, for he was born on a Sabine farm,
and although of a well to do family, was bred in the habits of
simplicity and rural industry with which the poets have made that
name synonymous. All his life he amused the leisure snatched from his
studies with intelligent supervision of the farming of his several
estates: and he wrote his treatise _Rerum Rusticarum_ in his eightieth

He had his share of active life, but it was as a scholar that he
distinguished himself.[4] Belonging to the aristocratic party, he
became a friend and supporter of Pompey, and, after holding a naval
command under him in the war against the Pirates in B.C. 67, was
his legatus in Spain at the beginning of the civil wars and there
surrendered to Caesar. He was again on the losing side at the battle
of Pharsalia, but was pardoned by Caesar, who selected him to be
librarian of the public library he proposed to establish at Rome.[5]
From this time Varro eschewed politics and devoted himself to letters,
although his troubles were not yet at an end: after the death of
Caesar, the ruthless Antony despoiled his villa at Casinum (where
Varro had built the aviary described in book Three), and like Cicero
he was included in the proscriptions which followed the compact of the
triumvirs, but in the end unlike Cicero he escaped and spent his last
years peacefully at his villas at Cumae and Tusculum.

His literary activity was astonishing: he wrote at least six hundred
books covering a wide range of antiquarian research. St. Augustine,
who dearly loved to turn a balanced phrase, says that Varro had read
so much that it is difficult to understand when he found time to
write, while on the other hand he wrote so much that one can scarcely
read all his books. Cicero, who claimed him as an intimate friend,
describes (_Acad_. Ill) what Varro had written before B.C. 46, but he
went on producing to the end of his long life, eighteen years later:
"For," says Cicero, "while we are sojourners, so to speak, in our own
city and wandering about like strangers, your books have conducted us,
as it were, home again, so as to enable us at last to recognize who
and whence we are. You have discussed the antiquities of our country
and the variety of dates and chronology relating to it. You have
explained the laws which regulate sacrifices and priests: you have
unfolded the customs of the city both in war and peace: you have
described the various quarters and districts: you have omitted
mentioning none of the names, or kinds, or functions, or causes of
divine or human things: you have thrown a flood of light on our poets
and altogether on Latin literature and the Latin language: you have
yourself composed a poem of varied beauties and elegant in almost
every part: and you have in many places touched upon philosophy in
a manner sufficient to excite our curiosity, though inadequate to
instruct us."

Of Varro's works, beside the _Rerum Rusticarum_, there have survived
only fragments, including a considerable portion of the treatise
on the Latin language: the story is that most of his books were
deliberately destroyed at the procurement of the Church (something
not impossible, as witness the Emperor Theodosius in _Corpus Juris
Civilis_. Cod. Lib. I, tit. I, cap. 3, § I) to conceal St. Augustine's
plagiarism from them; yet the _De Civitate Dei_, which is largely
devoted to refuting Varro's pagan theology, is a perennial monument to
his fame. St. Augustine says (VI, 2): "Although his elocution has less
charm, he is so full of learning and philosophy that ... he instructs
the student of facts as much as Cicero delights the student of style."

Varro's treatise on farm management is the best practical book on
the subject which has come down to us from antiquity. It has not the
spontaneous originality of Cato, nor the detail and suave elegance of
Columella. Walter Harte in his _Essays on Husbandry_ (1764) says
that Cato writes like an English squire and Varro like a French
academician. This is just comment on Cato but it is at once too much
and too little to say of Varro: a French academician might be proud
of his antiquarian learning, but would balk at his awkward and homely
Latin, as indeed one French academician, M. Boissier, has since done.
The real merit of Varro's book is that it is the well digested system
of an experienced and successful farmer who has seen and practised all
that he records.

The authority from which Virgil drew the practical farming lore, for
which he has been extolled in all ages, was Varro: indeed, as a farm
manual the _Georgics_ go astray only when they depart from Varro. It
is worth while to elaborate this point, which Professor Sellar, in his
argument for the originality of Virgil, only suggests.[6]

After Philippi the times were ripe for books on agriculture. The Roman
world had been divided between Octavian and Antony and there was peace
in Italy: men were turning "back to the land."

An agricultural regeneration of Italy was impending, chiefly in
viticulture, as Ferrero has pointed out. With far sighted appreciation
of the economic advantages of this, Octavian determined to promote the
movement, which became one of the completed glories of the Augustan
Age, when Horace sang

Tua, Caesar, aetas
Fruges et agris rettulit uberes.

Varro's book appeared in B.C. 37 and during that year Maecenas
commissioned Virgil to put into verse the spirit of the times; just
as, under similar circumstances, Cromwell pensioned Samuel Hartlib.
Such is the co-incidence of the dates that it is not impossible that
the _Rerum Rusticarum_ suggested the subject of the _Georgics_, either
to Virgil or to Maecenas.

There is no evidence in the _Bucolics_ that Virgil ever had any
practical knowledge of agriculture before he undertook to write the
_Georgics_. His father was, it is true, a farmer, but apparently in a
small way and unsuccessful, for he had to eke out a frugal livelihood
by keeping bees and serving as the hireling deputy of a _viator_ or
constable. This type of farmer persists and may be recognized in any
rural community: but the agricultural colleges do not enlist such
men into their faculties. So it is possible that Virgil owed little
agricultural knowledge to his father's precepts or example. Virgil
perhaps had tended his father's flock, as he pictures himself doing
under the guise of Tityrus; certainly he spent many hours of youth
"patulae recubans sub tegmine fagi" steeping his Celtic soul with the
beauty and the melancholy poetry of the Lombard landscape: and so he
came to know and to love bird and flower and the external aspects of

wheat and woodland
tilth and vineyard, hive and horse and herd,

but it does not appear that he ever followed the plough, or, what is
more important, ever laid off a ploughgate. As a poet of nature no one
was ever better equipped (the highest testimony is that of Tennyson),
but when it came to writing poetry around the art of farm management
it was necessary for him to turn to books for his facts. He
acknowledges (_Geo_. I, 176) his obligation only to _veterum
praecepta_ without naming them, but as M. Gaston Boissier says he was
evidently referring to Varro "le plus moderne de tous les anciens."[7]
Virgil evidently regarded Varro's treatise as a solid foundation for
his poem and he used it freely, just as he drew on Hesiod for literary
inspiration, on Lucretius for imaginative philosophy, and on Mago and
Cato and the two Sasernas for local colour.

Virgil probably had also the advantage of personal contact with Varro
during the seven years he was composing and polishing the _Georgics_.
He spent them largely at Naples (_Geo_. IV, 563) and Varro was then
established in retirement at Cumae: thus they were neighbours, and,
although they belonged to different political parties, the young poet
must have known and visited the old polymath; there was every
reason for him to have taken advantage of the opportunity. Whatever
justification there may be for this conjecture, the fact remains that
Varro is in the background every where throughout the _Georgics_, as
the "deadly parallel" in the appended note will indicate. This is
perhaps the most interesting thing about Varro's treatise: instructive
and entertaining as it is to the farmer, in the large sense of the
effect of literature on mankind, Virgil gave it wings - the useful cart
horse became Pegasus.

As a consequence of the chorus of praise of the _Georgics_, there have
been those, in all ages, who have sneered at Virgil's farming. The
first such _advocatus diaboli_ was Seneca, who, writing to Lucilius
(_Ep_. 86) from the farm house of Scipio Africanus, fell foul of the
advice (_Geo_, I, 216) to plant both beans and millet in the spring,
saying that he had just seen at the end of June beans gathered and
millet sowed on the same day: from which he generalized that Virgil
disregarded the truth to turn a graceful verse, and sought rather to
delight his reader than to instruct the husbandman. This kind of
cheap criticism does not increase our respect for Nero's philosophic
minister.[8] Whatever may have been Virgil's mistakes, every farmer
of sentiment should thank God that one of the greatest poems in any
language contains as much as it does of a sound tradition of the
practical side of his art, and here is where Varro is entitled to the
appreciation which is always due the schoolmaster of a genius.


At the beginning of the first _Georgic_ (1-5) Virgil lays out the
scope of the poem as dealing with three subjects, agriculture, the
care of live stock and the husbandry of bees. This was Varro's plan
(R.R. I, I, 2, and I, 2 passim) except that under the third head Varro
included, with bees, all the other kinds of stock which were usually
kept at a Roman steading. Varro asserts that his was the first
scientific classification of the subject ever made. Virgil (G. I,
5-13) begins too with the invocation of the Sun and the Moon and
certain rural deities, as did Varro (R.R. I, I, 4). The passages
should be compared for, as M. Gaston Boissier has pointed out, the
difference in the point of view of the two men is here illustrated
by the fact that Varro appeals to purely Roman deities, while Virgil
invokes the literary gods of Greece. Following the _Georgics_ through,
one who has studied Varro will note other passages for which a
suggestion may be found in Varro, usually in facts, but some times
in thought and even in words, viz: Before beginning his agricultural
operations a farmer should study the character of the country (G. I,
50: R.R. I, 6), the prevailing winds and the climate (G. I, 51: R.R.
I, 2, 3), the farming practice of the neighbourhood (G. I, 52: R.R. I,
18, 7), "this land is fit for corn, that for vines, and the other
for trees," (G. I, 54: R.R. I, 6, 5). He should practise fallow
and rotation (G. I, 71: R.R. I, 44, 2), and compensate the land by
planting legumes (G. I, 74: R.R. I, 23); he should irrigate his
meadows in summer (G. I, 104: R.R. I, 31, 5), and drain off surface
water in winter (G. I, 113: R.R. I, 36). Man has progressed from
a primitive state, when he subsisted on nuts and berries, to the
domestication of animals and to agriculture (G. I, 121-159: R.R. II,
1, 3). The threshing floor must be protected from pests (G. I, 178:
R.R. I, 51). Seed should be carefully selected (G. I, 197: R.R. 40,
2); the time for sowing grain is the autumn (G. I, 219: R.R. I, 34).
"Everlasting night" prevails in the Arctic regions (G. I, 247: R.R.
I, 2, 5); the importance to the farmer of the four seasons (G.I. 258;
R.R. I, 27) and the influence of the Moon (G.I. 276: R.R. I, 37).

The several methods of propagating plants described (G. II, 9-34: R.R.
I, 39), but here Varro follows Theophrastus (H.P. II, 1); trees grow
slowly from seed (G. II, 57; R.R. I, 41, 4); olives are propagated

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